(All Album Reviews by Reginod)
The first, self-titled album from Denmark's Culpeper's Orchard is one of those albums that will probably, eventually, turn up for most hardcore miners of progressive rock obscurities. Originally released way back in 1970, it was a natural for eventual re-distribution on CD via the Internet. Some of the long latent buzz about the album led me to believe that it was probably one of the best albums I'd never heard, even perhaps a classic.
I wouldn't go quite that far. Not quite.
The beginning of this album can be a little jarring, if you go in expecting sounds typical of 1970 rock convention. Instead, "Banjocul" is a very short (:46) piece consisting of only vocals and, shockingly!. . .a banjo. In its brevity, it serves as a tongue-in-cheek moment of amusement before the hammer falls. It isn't a horrid-sounding thing by any means, but the lead vocal (presumably from composer Cy Nicklin) might take some getting used to.
Indeed, throughout the album, the vocals are seldom a strength, although they are sung in quite decent English by Nicklin and lead guitarist Neils Henriksen. As singers, they give a passable but ultimately unremarkable performance. The lyrics are also good-but-not-great, given to psychedelic fancy and forays into fantasy. From the opening verse the tone is mostly set:
"To be forgotten, To live in Dust
To float in a stream and fly in the air
What more could we wish, To always be spread on earth,
Plucked as a flower to die with love, and fly to greet the sun."
Similarly, the compositions get a passing grade, but fall short of having the maturity which would render them indispensible. The real trick to Culpeper's Orchard, and, I suspect, the reason that it is sometimes awarded "gem" status, is the guitar work.
Snarling, jangling, aggressive, heavy, imbued with both folk and psych sensibilities, the tapestry of this album is woven from the fretboards of Nicklin and Henriksen. They immediately render themselves with youthful abandon upon "Mountain Music Part 1," peeling off riff after ferocious riff. Thereafter, no doubt is left concerning the dominant instrumentation of this recording. Side one (from the perspective of an old LP geezer) is likewise filled to overflowing with fret-blazing aplenty. "Hey You People" and "Teaparty For An Orchard" form an imperfect but potent mini-suite, while parts of "Ode To Resistance" could have been at home on a (good) Southern rock album. The last minute or so is nicley accented by Michael Friis' flute playing.
Henriksen and Nicklin cowrote the side two opener "Your Song And Mine" and therein provide another excellent example of how good two guitars can sound together, and comes off as a particular highlight amidst the other songs on the album.
The keyboards, also played by the multi-skilled Friis, are used well, mostly to provide depth and color to the musical palette. Naturally, Friis wrote the one cut on which the keys are dominant. Dirgelike and meandering, "Gideon's Trap" seems pointless and out of place considering the rest of the album. It is followed by Henriksens's 2:12 acoustic tune "Blue Day's Morning" before "Mountain Music Part 2" closes the collection. It is a somewhat diverse piece, suggesting West Coast psych and possessing a fair amount of British-styled blues rock wailing, maybe even losing focus just a smidgen, before bringing back the ol' banjo as a bookend.
Despite its flaws as a rock album, Culpeper's Orchard succeeds nicely as an ear-peeling 6-stringed extravaganza. Nicklin and Henriksen might not have been virtuosos, but the sheer exuberance and energy of their performance still sounds fresh and makes this album a keeper, if not exactly a stone-cold classic.